Is skateboarding a sport?
Farris Rahman thinks so, and he has the pedigree to show.
The 18-year-old Singaporean first got on a skateboard at four, started competing at six, has clocked countless local and global competitions and now ranks amongst the top 50 skateboarders in the world.
Most recently, the youngster’s accolades earned him a coveted spot in Red Bull’s stable of sportspeople – which includes luminaries like Sebastian Vettel, Thierry Henry and Neymar.
Red Bull's sponsorship will expose Rahman to an even greater international stage, and cover all costs of overseas travel. The brand also intends to send him to its Diagnostics and Training center in Salzburg, Austria for specialised athlete training.
But the newly-minted street star sees an important difference between “normal” sports such as football and a “thrill-seeking” one like skateboarding.
“Miss a goal in football, you’re disappointed… but safe,” he pointed out in a recent hour-long interview with Yahoo! Singapore at Somerset Skate Park. “Make a mistake in extreme sports, and it can cost you your life.”
Spoken like a brash, reckless daredevil – yet Rahman, only the third Asian skateboarder and second local athlete signed by Red Bull after wakeboarder Sasha Christian, is anything but.
Describing himself as “shy and socially awkward”, the youngest of three prolific skateboarding brothers said, “I’m not the ‘jock’ kind of guy... I’m really chill.”
When asked to capture the feeling of being on a skateboard, Rahman answered: “Relaxation. Something like dancing… graceful”.
Yet it is also an activity that carries its fair risk of nasty falls and injuries. Rahman, whose stomping ground is the Xtreme SkatePark at East Coast, admitted to being scared before attempting stunts. He also has no qualms about “letting go” of a move, should it prove too dangerous.
“Better losing the trick than losing yourself,” he said. “Besides, I’d rather train and slowly progress than dive in headfirst.”
It is a careful, methodical approach for a video-games-obsessed boy who calls himself “nerdy” and has an “interest in chemistry and applied physics”.
No wonder Rahman’s biggest role models outside of skateboarding are scientists Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein – and for reasons more essential than technical.
“I’m inspired by them starting as nothing, working hard for what they love doing, and eventually making something out of it. It’s the same approach I’m trying to go for,” said the student who is currently reading a diploma in outdoor and adventure learning at Republic Polytechnic.
True to his word, Rahman has been knuckling down and plugging away at his craft ever since he discovered that, despite an affinity for the Playstation 3, he couldn’t bear sitting around at home.
“People like us have ‘itchy legs’,” he laughed. “We literally have to move around.”
And move he has, from strength to strength. Not content with coming out tops in local skateboarding competitions, Rahman scored a second-place finish at the Asian X-Games 2011 in Shanghai and clinched sixth at the elite international Maloof Money Cup in South Africa last year.
The down-to-earth lad shared that he only got this far by working “for everything” and through constant practice.
“Younger kids complain to me that they can’t land this medium-level trick they’ve been trying for two weeks, and they want to give up,” related Rahman. “I tell them, when I was trying to learn the most basic trick, the kickflip, I started at four and landed my first kickflip at primary six.”
“You don’t learn things overnight – you’ve got to continue working for it.”
Some may snigger at him taking eight years to learn a trick, but present-day Rahman is proficient at three skateboarding disciplines of street, vert (ramp-based) and park. He is the only Singaporean in that regard.
Even so, Rahman acknowledged that his accolades remain bittersweet in a society where skateboarding continues to be stereotyped as “rebellious” and something you “don’t let your kids into”.
“People ask me, ‘you skateboard?’” said Rahman. “Then they scoff and say, ‘where are you going to go with that?’”
Where the teenager has gone, to be exact, is 41st in the world for what he does. It is an achievement Rahman is “happy” with, but his drive and ambition won’t settle so easily.
“All I see is a list of names that go up and up,” he mused. “The goal then becomes: can I, will I, make it to the top?
“Yes. I’m going for it.”